Peter Pan | Study Guide

J.M. Barrie

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Peter Pan | Symbols


The Ticking Crocodile

The lumbering crocodile with the clock ticking loudly in her stomach is an effective piece of stagecraft. It was one immediately popular with London audiences when the play was first produced in 1904. Carried over to the novel, the beast also serves as a dramatic symbol of mortality, the clock in her stomach stressing the relentless countdown to death. Every tick of the clock means one less moment left to live. Every step of the crocodile means death is that much closer. "Some day," the first mate Smee says to Captain Hook, "the clock will run down, and then he'll get you." "Ay," Hook replies. "That's the fear that haunts me."

One could argue that for Captain Hook, the crocodile doesn't represent death in a general sense but rather his specific fate. Hook says this outright, telling Smee that it isn't all crocodiles he fears, just this one. In other words, it isn't death he's trying to avoid—unlike Peter Pan. Hook knows that no one can escape that. Rather, what Hook desperately wants to avoid is a gruesome, painful death in the jaws of a creature who has a taste for his flesh in particular.

That this may be the case is evidenced by one incident. When Hook jumps overboard at the end of the book, he does only because he is unaware that the crocodile is waiting for him in the lagoon below. If he had known, he never would have jumped. Death by drowning he might be able to face, but never death by crocodile. The crocodile has stopped ticking, the clock in its stomach having reached the end, either of its windup spring or of Hook's time on earth. The author steps tell readers that he "purposely stopped the clock that this knowledge might be spared" Hook. But death does not spare Hook, and his most terrible fear is realized as he dies in the maw of his implacable pursuer.

Mrs. Darling's Kiss

The narrator makes quite a fuss over something that may seem confusing to readers. It is a kiss in the corner of Mrs. Darling's mouth that no one, not even her husband or children, has ever been able to get. This is mentioned no less than three times in the first three paragraphs of the book, so it is obviously important to the author. Readers are told Wendy has never been able to get this kiss and that Mr. Darling has given up trying.

Mrs. Darling does kiss her husband and children at other times. Two clues provide the significance of this "corner kiss." There is a scene in the second chapter, right before Peter Pan's arrival, in which the narrator says that sometimes Mrs. Darling would spin in a circle. All anyone could see of her at those times was that kiss. "If you had dashed at her you might have got it," the narrator says.

Then right after Peter Pan arrives, he is described as "being very much like Mrs. Darling's kiss"—and with all his baby teeth. So if Mrs. Darling's kiss is like Peter Pan, and Peter has all his baby teeth, perhaps her kiss represents the buried child who still lives within her. It is one she hides even from her family. Perhaps they would make fun of her if she revealed it, or worse, they would somehow smother it. The idea that her kiss is symbolic of the child who still lives within is corroborated by the earlier scene where her kiss is revealed when she is whirling around like a child.

The kiss is mentioned again in the penultimate chapter of the book, in a bittersweet paragraph describing the last meeting between Mrs. Darling and Peter Pan. This is the woman whom he once considered for his foster mother but rejected because she was too old. Now he is negotiating with Mrs. Darling to take her only daughter back to Neverland with him. After they finally agree to once-a-year spring cleaning visits, Peter leaves. The narrator says: "He took Mrs. Darling's kiss with him. The kiss that had been for no one else Peter took quite easily. Funny. But she seemed satisfied." Peter is taking her daughter away, even for only a week. With this concession she relinquishes to Peter the kiss, the lingering sense of her own childhood. Her satisfaction with the exchange symbolizes her willingness to allow Wendy the imaginative freedom she has given up herself.

The Ability to Fly

Flight is traditionally a symbol of freedom or escape. While the Darling children do not need to escape from a dangerous situation, J.M. Barrie clearly suggests all children need to escape, at least occasionally, from social conventions and parental expectations. How better to depict such freedom than with literal flight?

When Peter Pan first arrives in the nursery at the Darling house, the three children naturally want to learn to fly just like he does. Ever the trickster, Peter Pan allows them to try on their own, but they all fall flat on their faces. "I say, how do you do it?" John Darling asks after one knee-bruising fall. "You just think lovely wonderful thoughts and they lift you up in the air," Peter explains.

Peter is lying, apparently, because a few paragraphs later he admits that he had been playing a joke on them. It takes fairy dust for a person to fly. Despite the mention of fairy dust, the equation of flying with belief—here in something lovely and wonderful—is made elsewhere in the book.

Belief seems to be more essential to flight than does fairy dust. Surely fairy dust would wear off after a while. Yet it lasts for "moons and moons" through the exhausting journey to Neverland, and the book never shows Peter reapplying the dust. Nor do either the Darlings or the lost boys appear to need topping off during their entire stay. When the children are captured, the pirates even have to tie them down because otherwise it would be so easy for them to escape by simply flying away.

They all retain this ability for almost a year after their return to London, to the point that Nana has to tie all nine children to their beds at night or they will float off. But gradually they lose the power to fly. Here the narrator says something that explicitly contradicts the notion that fairy dust is necessary to fly. John and the lost boys say they can't do it anymore because they are out of practice, but "what it really meant was they no longer believed."

Wendy Darling continues to believe, at least at first, and so it is possible for her to fly back with Peter Pan to Neverland. But when she grows up, she loses the knack. When her daughter Jane Darling asks why, Wendy says, "When people grow up, they forget the way." Pushing her mother for a more precise explanation, Jane asks why grown-ups forget. Wendy's answer shows the true symbolic nature of flying in the book. "It is only the gay and innocent and heartless who can fly," she explains.

Flying represents the child-like ability to believe—not necessarily in magic, as in the case of Tinker Bell and fairies—but in the possibility of magic. Adults have shut off that part of themselves. They have learned to see the world as a series of limits rather than a place of limitless possibilities. This failure to believe is what has grounded them. Only children are still free of these self-imposed blinders. Only "innocent" children are still able to believe. Thus only they can fly.

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